As the climate warms, meteorites may be lost to the ice

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“As the climate continues to warm, Antarctic rocks are sinking into the ice at an increasing rate.
Over time, this will make many meteorites inaccessible to scientists,” said Valdes, who wasn’t involved in the latest research.
How to find a meteorite Meteorites, lumps of rock that fall from space through Earth’s atmosphere randomly, do not fall in an evenly scattered pattern across the frozen continent.
In these areas, a combination of ice flow processes and local weather conditions remove layers of snow and ice from the surface, exposing meteorites that were once embedded in the ice.
In the new study, co-lead author Tollenaar and her team projected the loss of meteorites under different climate change scenarios by combining climate modeling with their work from the 2022 paper.
Only at elevations above 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) will meteorites losses be less than 50%, the study said.
“The main worry is the logistical aspect of searching for Antarctica meteorites, which is already difficult today due to the remoteness of Antarctica.
“If meteorites are not collected quickly enough, they will be a lost resource for present and future planetary science,” he added.


Researchers studying meteorites, like Maria Valdes of the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History, are drawn to the icy plains of Antarctica. Every year, about 1,000 space rocks are discovered in the area. Their black color stands out against the white background.

“An ice-covered desert like Antarctica offers a perfect setting for recovering meteorites; just find the right spot, and any rock you come across has to have fallen from the sky,” explained Valdes, who traveled there in late 2022 and early 2023 as part of a team for her job at the Robert A. Pritzker Institute of Polar Studies and Meteoritics. Five meteorites were found by the multinational team.

In the midst of an ice field, we happened upon a massive brown stone sitting by itself. It weighed seven point six kg, or roughly seventeen pounds, and was somewhat smaller than a bowling ball, the woman wrote in an email. “Throughout my career, I had handled and seen a lot of meteorites, but discovering one for yourself is a very different experience. “.

Every meteorite, which was formed from extraterrestrial bodies like the moon, Mars, or massive asteroids, has a different story to tell about the formation of the solar system. However, a recent study suggests that this wealth of scientific data is at risk due to the climate crisis. Scientists can no longer access meteorites because they are vanishing into the ice.

Antarctic rocks are seeing a faster rate of ice submersion due to the ongoing warming of the climate. This will eventually prevent scientists from accessing many meteorites, according to Valdes, a scientist not involved in the most recent study. We misplace priceless time capsules that contain information about the past of our solar system. “.

A study released on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that as Earth warms, roughly 5,000 meteorites may vanish from the surface of melting ice sheets annually. More than 48,000 meteorites have been found in Antarctica to date, making up roughly 60% of all specimens found worldwide.

How a meteorite is found.

The frozen continent is not uniformly covered in a uniform pattern of meteorites, which are rock fragments that fall randomly from space through Earth’s atmosphere. According to Valdes, concentrations occur in specific areas due to weather patterns and geography.

In fields of blue ice, meteorites are especially abundant. Meteorites that were previously encased in ice become visible in these regions when a mix of regional weather patterns and ice flow processes lifts layers of snow and ice from the top. In contrast to the snow on the surface around it, the wind-blown ice frequently has a blue appearance.

“Phenomenal concentrations of meteorites can develop over significant stretches of time (tens or hundreds of thousands of years), as high as 1 per square meter in some locations,” the statement read.

Most of the time, researchers have found regions of blue ice rich in meteorites by accident. On the other hand, Veronica Tollenaar, a doctoral researcher at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, and her colleagues systematized the search by using a machine-learning algorithm to create a “treasure map” of likely meteorite-rich zones based on variables like surface temperature, surface slope, surface cover, and movement of ice flow.

The study found 600 zones and proposed that 300,000 meteorites may still be present at the ice sheet’s surface. It was published in the journal Science Advances in January 2022. When deciding exactly where to search during their expedition, Valdes and her colleagues used the information, according to her statement from 2023.

Our research suggests that Tollenaar’s method is currently limited to first order problems. It’s also important to take into account local factors like topography and wind patterns, which have the potential to reroute meteorites from blue ice fields into nearby meteorite traps, according to Valdes.

By merging climate modeling with their work from the 2022 paper, co-lead author Tollenaar and her team projected the loss of meteorites under various climate change scenarios in the new study.

Even in below-freezing temperatures (32 Fahrenheit), the meteorites can sink into the ice. The surrounding ice melts as a result of the sun heating up the dark rock, which more readily absorbs solar radiation due to its color. According to Tollenaar, “with that heat, it can locally melt the ice and slowly disappear from the surface.”.

One of four variables connected to a possible meteorite cluster, according to Harry Zekollari, co-lead author of the new study with Tollenaar.

Zekollari, an associate professor of glaciology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, stated, “It’s really important that it’s cold and if your surface temperature starts changing, even if it’s going from minus 12 C to minus 9 C, it’s crossing a magic threshold where you’re starting to lose meteorites.”.

The researchers calculated that 28–30% of Antarctica’s meteorites might become inaccessible under current policies, which they said may cause a warming of 2–6–2–7 degrees Celsius (4–7–9 F) above preindustrial levels. The estimate rose to 76% in a scenario with high emissions. According to the study, meteorite losses will only be less than 50% at elevations above 2,500 meters (8,202 feet).

Considering how global warming seems to affect Antarctica, Matthias van Ginneken, a research associate at the University of Kent’s Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science in the UK, said the work “made a lot of sense.”. “.

Van Ginneken, who did not participate in the study, expressed his wish that the authors had conducted lab experiments to simulate the effects of global warming on meteorites and discussed more about the uncertainties in their model, as this would have provided evidence in favor of the algorithm’s findings.

He responded by email, saying, “It is undoubtedly concerning, but there will still be thousands of meteorites to find each year.”.

The primary concern is the logistical challenge of finding meteorites in Antarctica, which is already challenging given the continent’s remoteness. In the event that the findings of this study come to pass, scientists will be compelled to investigate previously uncharted territory—possibly even farther from established scientific paradigms than they currently do. This treasure trove would become even more inaccessible as a result, requiring additional financial and logistical support. “.

The lessons that Antarctic meteorites can teach us.

In a commentary published alongside the research, Kevin Righter, a planetary scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, stated that meteorites found in the planet’s southernmost regions have taught us a great deal. He was not a part of the recent investigation.

Righter pointed out that meteorites collected in the area in 1979 and 1981 were identified by scientists as coming from the moon. Prior to these discoveries, the only known lunar samples came from the landing sites of Apollo and Luna. We now have a more thorough and random sampling of the whole lunar surface thanks to the meteorite samples. Mars has been linked to additional meteorites.

New meteorite types, possibly including fragments of Mercury or Venus that may have been expelled from their surfaces after impacts, are expected to be discovered with continued meteorite collection, according to all of the recent research history. “.

Collection efforts should be prioritized and stepped up, according to Righter and the study’s authors. He continued, saying that meteorites would become extinct as a resource for planetary science in the future.

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